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THE NATION

Grieving Son Rediscovers His Family Legacy

June 16, 2002|HELEN O'NEILL | ASSOCIATED PRESS WRITER

INDIANAPOLIS — His father taught him simple things, such as the joy of slipping into the kitchen to make waffles at dawn while the rest of the house slept, or the thrill of cutting school to head to the speedway or catch a baseball game--just the two of them.

From his father he inherited a love of tennis, the outdoors, books--especially the most important book, the Bible.

And from his father, an Army chaplain, he inherited a legacy.

You are the son and grandson of a minister, Allan Streett would tell his son. You are from a line of men who strived to make the world a better place. That is your legacy too, as a Streett, as a minister's son.

On the frigid winter night in 1978 when the father he adored was gunned down before his eyes, Tim Streett was left alone with that legacy. He was 15 years old.

They buried his dad with military honors in Arlington National Cemetery. In a daze, the son listened to the eulogies and the prayers and the 21-gun salute.

And he wondered: How could he make the world a better place when the man who had made it so good was gone?

*

It had been a hard winter: one blizzard rolling into the next. Father and son had gotten used to shoveling snow morning and night in their driveway in the pretty Oak Lawn suburb of Indianapolis.

They would talk as they shoveled, about sports and school and maybe about the sermon that Allan Streett had delivered that Sunday. The message of the Bible always sprinkled his conversations, as it shaped his life.

Tim doesn't remember what they were talking about that night, but he remembers the sound--the single terrifying shot ringing through the night, his father, head bloodied, falling backward in the snow, the gunman turning on the son.

Tim was sure he was going to die. But the gunman just grabbed the boy's wallet and ran to a waiting car.

Tim dropped to his knees beside his father's limp body. He cradled his father's head, heard the gurgling sound, knew nothing would ever be the same.

He raced screaming into the house.

As the father died in the hospital that night, the son sat in the police station being grilled about what he had seen. A few days later he picked the killer out of a lineup.

A few months later, he took the witness stand. He felt numb as he told his story--about his hero, a man who had devoted his life to God, his family, his country.

He was the best dad in the world, the son told the judge.

The shooter was sentenced to death. His accomplice, the man who drove the getaway car, got 90 years.

*

For years, Streett says, he didn't feel the bitterness of his sisters, or the anger of his mother. For years, he didn't feel anything at all.

But his personality changed on the night his childhood ended.

For the first time in his life, he didn't feel safe. His mother sent him to live with friends in Croton-on-Hudson, N.Y., after police warned of threats on her son's life.

Far from home, Streett felt lonely and unsure, always watchful, always scared--especially if he saw a gang of youths, especially if they were black.

Streett knew what his father would have said. He could almost hear his father's voice, soft as always, but tinged with disappointment.

There is no place for prejudice in this world, his father would have said. There is no place for an unforgiving heart. You must find a way to love and forgive.

But how could a son forgive his father's killers? It was hard enough not to hate them.

Streett, once so happy-go-lucky and sure, became withdrawn. He didn't talk to his friends about his father's death. He stopped talking to God.

At Purdue University, he lost himself in a haze of drink and drugs. After graduating with a degree in sociology, he drifted, working as a waiter, winding up as manager of a restaurant in Houston.

He was driving down a Texas highway when he heard the song:

"It's like someone took a knife, baby, edgy and dull, and carved a six-inch valley through the middle of my soul."

The lyrics were Bruce Springsteen's, but the ache described Streett's heart.

The memories flooded back, followed by tears. Before it was over, Streett knew exactly what he would do.

He would become a minister like his father. He would return to Indianapolis and live among the poor. He would minister to young people with few hopes and few prospects and no fathers of their own. He would fight to keep them from becoming the kind of youths who had killed his dad.

*

Once he made the decision, Streett became his old purposeful self. He enrolled in the Gordon-Conwell seminary in Boston. He started reading everything he could about the urban poor, about racial prejudice, about programs to combat it. He learned to preach.

"For the first time in years," he says, "I was in the right place."

Streett met and quickly married Stacy Hocker, a woman who shared his convictions. After interning at a Chicago church for a few years, he made his way back to Indianapolis, to the sprawling East 91st Street Christian Church in the city's northern suburbs. There, Streett was given a special ministry--the urban poor.

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